Big in Japan
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
It’s not always true, but it sometimes is. It certainly is with Suzuka, the welcome stop-off for this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Whatever the newer venues’ merits none have got even close to quickening the pulse when cars circulate as they do at this venue. Not all that many of the older tracks have either.
The layout is dominated by challenging, snaking, undulating turns – the sort that separate the great from the good; the sort that would most likely be laughed out of court were they proposed now from the ground up.
The narrow circuit’s challenge is like walking an ever-veering tightrope. There aren’t vast run-off areas to use as a benign get-out. Precision counts.
The Japanese crowd never fails to be numerous, and defers to none on passion.
And you can combine all this with the track’s uncanny knack of being a pivotal place for deciding who wins world championships, sometimes dramatically (quintessentially Senna, Prost and all that). It’s maintained the status even with it placed further away from the season’s conclusion these days – last year indeed it was Nico Rosberg’s victory here that made his title, long doubted, look inevitable.
And this weekend the title again is at a crunch point. F1 form lately has gone through the looking glass – in both of the last two rounds at very different circuit types Mercedes has been oddly off the pace; Ferrari has been well on top. But in both misfortune befell the Scuderia and Merc extended its points lead.
Brows at Merc are furrowed even so; no one at that team denies that there is work to do to fix its recent poor pace.
There are reasons for Mercedes to be optimistic for this one though. Suzuka has long been ear-marked as a strong track for its car, with the long uphill drag near the end of the lap plus the many fast sweeps. Also the hot ambient of the previous two rounds, and which often gives the Merc bother, is unlikely to be repeated this time.
You can add that its championship rival, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, may have a gearbox penalty after his cool down lap contretemps in Malaysia. This is one of the last tracks you’d want one – Suzuka’s solitary bum note is that passing on it is very difficult.
Then again we’ve mentioned Ferrari’s strong recent pace, plus there have been a few tracks this year supposed to suit Merc that Ferrari has confounded us at – not least Suzuka’s closest cousin Spa.
Lewis Hamilton has won here twice but has never qualified on pole plus has often by his own admission struggled to find an ideal set-up. Sebastian Vettel by contrast has won here four times.
His team mate Kimi Raikkonen goes well on flowing circuits and possibly his best ever win was at this track. The other Merc pilot Valtteri Bottas also has a reasonable record here, qualifying third on two occasions.
Suzuka also strains the cars and in particular the engines given the high average speed and ever-varying gradients and loads. This may worry Ferrari especially, given its recent reliability woes.
These days Red Bull has to be considered in the battle at the front too, and has to be particularly at this circuit. The local aero requirements is just the Bulls’ thing – it’s likely to be quickest in the twisty first two sectors. On the other hand the flat out final sector will be a challenge, as will that it won’t be able to turn its engines up for qualifying like Ferrari and particularly Merc. Track position matters a lot here as noted. Even so Max Verstappen finished second last year, within five seconds of the victorious Merc.
Of the rest, other Mercedes-powered cars often show up well here and indeed last year they took six of the ten points-paying places. Haas did surprisingly well last year too as Romain Grosjean qualified eighth.
On the face of it Honda may struggle on its home track but McLaren has been going better recently. Renault also is ever-improving.
As intimated qualifying and the start matter a lot for this race, and the latter effectively decided the winner here in the last two visits. Two years ago Lewis took the lead at turn one and was never seen again. Last year Lewis had a poor start which ended his win chances at a stroke. Suzuka’s fast and bottleneck first turn also is often the scene of grief.
There may also be few strategy chances to make places. One-stoppers have become the norm lately and Esteban Ocon did an almost race distance on the soft tyre in Malaysia. The same compounds are available this time.
Suzuka has historically been tough on tyres yet last year when the rubber was softer than now teams found degradation surprisingly low. Renault, Williams and Sauber employed one-stoppers.
Then again the undercut is powerful on this long lap while with the nearby things to hit and track access often difficult safety cars and virtual safety cars may be a factor.
There’s another local variable. Japan is synonymous with rain and Suzuka particularly so; twice qualifying here has been held on Sunday morning due to Saturday falling victim to weather. Current forecasts suggest rain may hit this Saturday again.
So plenty to think about heading into our Suzuka weekend. Which is just the way it should be.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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